Aug 062014
Compelling story dictionary

A compelling story according to Macmillan’s.

All writers consider writing about the episodes of their past. It’s not just the aspiring memoirist that wonders, “Is my story compelling enough?”

What started me down this path was reading Anne R. Allen’s How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts.

DON’T include every detail because “it’s what really happened.” Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.”

In some ways, I agree with her.

I don’t feel like my life journey is great memoir material–especially, if I compare my life  with other’s—J.P.’s for example. I’ve only been beat up once, and I’ve never been shot at during a drive-by.

On the other hand, like many writers, I do like to write memory vignettes or flash memoirs. How do I complete? How do I tell compelling stories?

  • By telling lies  writing fiction or fictionalizing my stories
  • By being a damn good writer

Let’s go with the latter—kind of.

Since the question of whether or not I’m a damn good writer is one that I barely contemplate with myself, I’ll choose a damn good writer to choose from to illustrate my point.

Compelling Story versus Compelling Storytelling

Working with hobby writers, I spend a lot of my time of my favorite soapbox. Ordinary stories connect us with our own stories. That’s part of the magic. When they evoke a common human experience, they can be powerful. Ever ask a group of seven-year-olds if anyone has a tooth story?

Anne Lamott does a great job of writing universal experiences into extraordinary stories. She does it, in my opinion, by how she puts herself on the page.

In Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, she writes about having a baby. There are a lot of us that have done that. How she encapsulates this common experience is the genius of her craft. It’s her voice. As a reader, her voice is echoing the thoughts in my head that are too inarticulate to find their way out on their own. She gives my poorly formed thoughts expression, summing up everything I felt about having a son.

 “One thing about having a baby is that each step of the way you simply cannot imagine loving him any more than you already do, because you are bursting with love, loving as much as you are humanly capable of- and then you do, you love him even more.” [1]

Now that she’s reading my mind, I’m in. Her story doesn’t have to be “different.” The ride will be extraordinary. I might even take notes.

She also manages to humanize herself, despite the fact that she’s eloquent. She does this by injecting humor and letting the reader fell the full force of the randomness of her reflections.

“I guess he’ll have to figure out someday that he is supposed to have this dark side, that it is part of what it means to be human, to have the darkness just as much as the light- that in fact the dark parts make the light visible; without them, the light would disappear. But I guess he has to figure other stuff out first, like how to keep his neck from flopping all over the place and how to sit up.” [2]

It’s another way of connecting to her less-than-perfect readers. When I come to care about her personally, my bar of expecting an extraordinary story lowers. I want to know how she works through this thing we call life.

What are your thoughts? How do you tell compelling stories?

[1] Goodreads: Anne Lamott Quotes.
[2] ditto

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LAURA HEDGECOCK is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and webmaster. Her passion is telling stories and helping others tell theirs. That passion led to her latest book Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life and her website and blog, When she’s not writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two nearly-adult sons (and her Springer Spaniel), playing soccer, nature photography, and finding her roots—which might explain her messy house.

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